If you’re on a casualised contract worrying about your pension might seem remote, perverse even. For the tens of thousands of staff who endure on fixed-term teaching or research contracts, who worry about where their next funding pot is coming from or who struggle on hourly paid teaching contracts, it’s the lack of job security that causes immediate stress and anxiety.
This is all completely understandable but the reality is that what’s happening to the USS pension scheme is a matter for every member of academic staff working in the pre-92 university sector.
The pension benefits that are available to staff through USS are under an attack that is designed to create greater insecurity in retirement for staff. That might sound extreme but it’s true.
USS is one of the last pension schemes to keep what’s called a ‘defined benefit’ pension structure, whereby you know roughly what you will get in retirement, whether it’s defined by your final salary or your career average salary. In the last 30 years, private sector pensions have almost universally become ‘defined contribution’ schemes that place more risk on individuals and produce lower benefits in retirement.
USS is also a major investor with a portfolio of different investments, including shares in the City that earn income for the scheme. The government’s pensions regulator wants to make sure that USS remains solvent so that its costs never fall on the taxpayer, so it is demanding that USS ‘de-risks’ its investments and raises the contributions being made into the scheme, while cutting the scheme’s liabilities (otherwise known as your pension benefits). That’s why the USS board is insisting on a valuation methodology that artificially creates a big deficit. This provides the justification to call for higher contributions and to cut benefits.
University employers don’t want their contributions to keep rising, so they are putting forward proposals that shift more risk onto you by cutting your retirement benefits.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re in the final salary section or the career average section now, your pension in retirement will be worse as result of these proposals.
If you are on a casual contract you may not even be in the scheme, but it’s still vital to vote for action.
If you want to stay in the sector, build a career and work in a pre-92 university, USS will be your scheme. The employers have imposed highly detrimental changes on USS once already, back in 2011 and the danger is that they will do so again now. And it is improbable to suggest that they won’t come back again.
That’s why the fight for USS is just as much a fight for casualised staff as for the permanent. If casualised staff don’t take action now, the danger is that their future retirements will be even more insecure than their current employment.
The fight for security is one that unites all UCU members. UCU is campaigning against insecurity in employment and we fight with the same vigour for security in retirement.
That’s why we urge all members, whatever their employment status, to stand together and fight for greater security in work and greater security in retirement.
Download and distribute this new leaflet aimed at casualised staff now. Make sure that all members stand together for security in work and security in retirement.
VOTE YES TO ACTION
Since 2013 I’ve been fortunate enough to be on a permanent contract as a lecturer, with teaching and research in my workload. But for the past two years after finishing my PhD, this was a much different situation, as I was on casualised teaching-only contracts. Don’t get me wrong; there were many valuable things about working at these jobs: they allowed me to pay the rent (which I desperately needed at the time) and, while the pay was significantly less than what I am earning now, it was at least enough to survive on (which is not the case for many casualised jobs, such as hourly paid teaching). I have met some fantastic colleagues, and in one of the institutions where I worked, was given some very helpful mentoring. I was able to get some important teaching experience and now have a better understanding of how things work in different institutions.
However, because these contracts were teaching-only, they did not include the time or resources to do research. And it’s very difficult to do research when you’re doing it on your own time and it’s not officially part of your job. Temporary teaching-only contracts often have quite heavy teaching loads, in part because research is not included. I know this sounds unfair (because it is!), but my teaching load was actually heavier when I was working on part-time contracts than it is now on a full-time contract (which is why I’m now able to be much more productive), and the temporary nature of the post meant continually having to apply for the next job, which took a lot of time that could have been spent on research.
And—here’s the catch-22—in HE, research is the only way to escape casualised employment. In other words, no time to publish=no publishing=no permanent job. That’s the reality of today’s job situation in HE, particularly because October 2013 was the cut-off point for including staff in the Research Excellence Framework (REF) census. I should point out that if I did not have publications for the REF, I probably would not have my current job today.
In retrospect, the only way I was able to publish was through literally sacrificing any amount of free time I had: I would write on evenings, weekends, on the train (because these temporary contracts were not really long enough to make it worth relocating, I had to commute). In retrospect, I don’t know how I kept my sanity. I don’t have children or caring responsibilities and have a sympathetic and supportive partner, which made this possible. Otherwise it would have been much more difficult.
Also, I got to know others employed on similar contracts working at the same institution (as we shared the office) and noticed that they were mostly 1) early career academics and 2) younger women (although the HESA statistics do not show a gender disparity in terms of staff employed on temporary, teaching-only contracts). I don’t know how representative these experiences are, but it does make me wonder if the generation of academics is being stuck in these sorts of temporary, teaching only posts to free up time for more established academics (or at least those on teaching-and-research contracts like I am now) to produce publications for the REF, a trap that it is very difficult to escape.
According to the latest HESA statistics, teaching-only contracts are more likely to be temporary and part-time than teaching-and-research contracts. And now, more disturbingly, almost half of teaching-only contracts are now zero-hours. While my previous contracts were temporary, at least I had the certainty of knowing how many hours a week I would be working, and that I would be earning enough to support myself financially. Can you imagine doing research when you have no idea when you will be working, or if you will be earning enough money to live on? How are you supposed to plan time, or have the peace of mind to write?
These contracts are often defended in terms of employers’ needs for flexibility. I also hear arguments about how “some people like teaching and don’t want to do research”—but there’s often an implicit assumption that some people don’t want job security either. I also wonder how many people in these posts actually “don’t want to do research” and how many of these people actually do want to do research but are stuck in teaching-only posts, and furthermore, how many are actually early career academics who are struggling to build a profile when they are having to write and publish on their own time, in some cases with little acknowledgment that they are carrying out research. This is why we need to pay more attention to this issue as UCU activists, particularly as more institutions plan to expand the use of teaching-only contracts and as the next REF approaches. It’s particularly important for us to campaign for time, resources and support for casualised staff to carry out research and build academic profiles.
by Helen Lees
When I was a PhD student struggling to make sense of a higher education environment that rendered me at the bottom of its pile in terms of status, I thought well, if I get a job in a university then I will be someone. I will have started a career. It felt like a happy scenario.
Prior to that, after quite a few years in a “what shall I do with my life?” wilderness I had stumbled on work that I could do; for which I was suited and which gave me a sense of meaning and joy. I had read an academic article in the library when training to be a teacher and I knew immediately and exactly what I wanted for my contribution to the world. I wanted to become an academic. I would do a PhD and then write, write, write (and teach). My vision forward was clear. So I sucked up the bad bits of being a Phd student with my eyes on the prize.
You know, the PhD was quite hard work. So were the subsequent two monographs in two years and the setting up of the journal, the papers, the funding applications and so on. I did it all because I thought it would be worth it. For the sake of others and for making a difference to their lives. But to do this properly you need continuity and support…
Watch out for gender issues
Oh, how naïve. Firstly I am a woman, so the odds on my turning a PhD into a (paid) full time, long term career as a public servant of thought, publication and teaching are, in fact, slim. Albeit possible, the chances are sadly less likely than if I inhabited a male body. Weird but true: my genitalia disable me as an academic of value. It’s 2013 and that is still true. But it’s just about the mind in higher education you say? No it isn’t. Not yet and the rate of progress is too slow as a recent Canadian report on professorial promotions for women suggests. What’s being tried just ain’t enough. As if we need to be told, higher education is and remains stupidly, stubbornly dysfunctional in its relationship to women in its midst. Women are still tainted by sexisms which fail to treat their mental capacities fairly. Implicit bias, open bias, covert bias and blatant networking to exclude, serve to mean that women’s work and thought is sidelined, ignored, cited less, “presumed incompetent” and belittled. Men do better in a highly competitive domain. What’s happening right now through official schemes to address this isn’t nearly enough.
Did I experience a belittling of my work as an academic in the first three years of employment – post PhD – in higher education (2010-2013)? Alas, dear reader, I did. Not from everyone because some male colleagues were and are amazingly supportive, but from too many men I received a sort of drip drip snub. Was I not being male enough? All the schemes in the world (Concordat, Badge of Excellence, Athena Swan, the law…) did not help to stop me feel slightly bewildered. Why was he getting on so much better than me? Why is his work paid attention and taken seriously whilst mine is passed over as a “novelty”? Why is his work put into the REF and mine not? Why are they discussing his work in the meeting and never mine? Do I exist? Why does he have solid networks whilst I struggle to fit in? Why am I, as an employee, described as “in and out”? Is he better than me? Why does he have a permanent job and an office, a laptop, an ipad and responsibilities and I – and all these other women – linger on precarious short term contracts, dependent on funding, often infantalised into serving professorial staff and not much more unless we turn our face away and become difficult and, shall I say, “entrepreneurial”?
Mysteries which increasing levels of research on bias against women’s thought and inclusion on equal terms in higher education begins to unravel. Given I was a woman on a research contract I never stood a chance.at equity or fairly tendered respect as a general rule – it became the exception. That PhD student self I had back then thought research would be a viable pathway to make my desired contribution to knowledge and the world. Dear dear silly little me. I had no idea how difficult that would be to make true given my gender.
But sexism aside, perhaps my status as an early career researcher on a contract might help because I am to be supported – we are told – to create a flourishing career? So I can contribute this talent I have, this latent potential? So says the Concordat and Vitae for example. They are set up to help me in the early stages and in a researcher role, so I’ll be all right! After all, the European Commission has identified that without researcher personnel to develop the knowledge economy the future looks a little troubled. So, making sure researchers flourish, feel included, happy, find meaning and develop to do research and make their vital contributions is a big priority. But this is idealistic.
Those in power forget (do they?) to factor in that in any institution without proper democratic structures someone has to be the kicking horse. Is it likely to be the early career researcher on a contract? Perfect. Cheap minds on seats to serve the ambitions of permanent colleagues. At an interpersonal level, let’s make sure the contract researchers don’t matter much because then that means we “permanents” matter more than them. Let’s get the early career researcher down in the dust somehow in exchange for a reference or another research post. Another research post that also is likely another contract because, once you get branded as a contract researcher and have spent your time serving the egotistic hierarchies of a department where permanent colleagues get the career support, you have nothing to show on your CV in the way of teaching and supervision and no-one values a researcher anyway. They are the new “house-wife” or the easily “expendable factor” when the gaming begins. This is the reality. Something’s got to give.
So forget your contribution to society dear researcher (especially female but not exclusively because men on contracts suffer too). Because of the contract you have signed, the last nine months of it will be easily spent filling out random (all different format) online job application forms in any free time you may have; taking tremendous amounts of time (that could have been spent on research or, crikey, with your family or friends) and you may or may not get another post. Of course you could have taken that redeployment in the face of redundancy by accepting the junior level project post in the social work department, but you have academic pride and a sense of your own value? Oh dear dear. You expect a viable, recognizable career pathway? What silliness. They were right to not bother about you after all because you are clearly too stupid to work in higher education. And, by the way, we are right to patronize and ignore you whatever direction you turn because that stops you making even more complaints which are really bad form, dear. Oh, and by the way, we wish you would shut up. We have a university to run.
Helen Lees firstname.lastname@example.org